I interviewed 49ers’ third-string quarterback McLeod Bethel-Thompson over the phone last week. Here is the transcript.
Q: Which colleges offered you scholarships when you were coming out of high school?
BETHEL-THOMPSON: When I came out of high school, I was convinced I was going to Stanford. I didn’t know the recruiting process very well at all. I committed to Stanford without them committing to me. I went through much of my high school career, all the way through the championship game my senior year having committed to Stanford and them not committing to me. When that fell through, I ended up getting some offers to I-AA schools back east.
Q: Why did you choose to go to UCLA?
BETHEL-THOMPSON: I got into the school. They didn’t have a quarterback in that class. It was a good opportunity to go to a good school, which is what my parents wanted me to do, and then to play at the highest level possible.
Q: What was your skill level coming out of high school when you entered UCLA?
BETHEL-THOMPSON: It was behind. I was raw. My first year ever playing football was my sophomore year of high school, and I started on varsity that year. I was playing catch-up and I think I still am in a lot of ways.
Q: How much did you improve at UCLA?
BETHEL-THOMPSON: Astronomically. Those two years I spent there, and then having played as a redshirt freshman – I appeared in six games, started two including a bowl game against BYU. I felt my skills had grown a whole bunch. And I had taken a lot of lumps, too. That’s part of improving. You’ve got to play bad to get better in a lot of ways.
Q: Why did you choose Sacramento State?
BETHEL-THOMPSON: I thought there was a coach there that would work with me, it was close to home. It was in California. There were a bunch of reasons. Being close to home and an opportunity to play right away were the two biggest.
Q: Did you end up working with the coach you expected to work with?
BETHEL-THOMPSON: Yes, but we didn’t work very well together.
Q: What do you mean?
BETHEL-THOMPSON: It was a hard three years at Sac State. I went in and played right away and tore my ACL. Then came back and had to work really hard to get my starting job back, and I did halfway through my junior year. And then played well, and then tore my ankle my senior year. It was a lot of hard knocks, a lot of hard lessons. There were a lot more trials than triumphs.
Q: How much did you improve at Sacramento State?
BETHEL-THOMPSON: I think I improved as a human being there. I think having dealt with the bad stuff that went down and dealt with failure and dealt with the game being taken away from me, I felt like I cherished the game more and I appreciated it more, I and I knew that when your shot comes you’d better make the most of it. I think I grew as a person than I did as a football player.
Q: You grew more as a quarterback at UCLA?
BETHEL-THOMPSON: Yeah, that was just because of the coaching staff that was there and the structure that was there. I think if I had gotten to play more at Sac State, that would have been a different story, but I think the structure was what allowed me to grow.
Q: Would you do anything differently?
BETHEL-THOMPSON: I’m here now and I’m very happy to be here now, so I can’t say I would do anything differently because I don’t think you should tempt the fates. Hubris is a real thing. I think there are a lot of places I could have played more. Who knows, maybe I could have been drafted. I could have been in a different situation. But I can’t worry about that.
Q: Can a smaller school enhance a quarterback’s development in ways a larger school can’t?
BETHEL-THOMPSON: It’s all the place and the player. If there is the right mesh of the two, you’re going to have a player who becomes exponentially better. There are a lot of situations where you take a smaller school, and they’re going to pay more attention to or put more on their star player, ask more of them, demand more of them in practice, make them try different things in the games. Football is so much about learning from your mistakes and learning from failure that opportunity is paramount. At the same time, if you play at a big school, you’re playing against the best and you’re in a factory and you’re in a system and you’re in something that has worked and is proven. It’s all about the mesh and the relationship more than big school or little school.
Q: Most of the top QBs in the upcoming draft went to smaller schools. Is that a coincidence or a trend?
BETHEL-THOMPSON: I think the whole game is leveling out in a lot of ways. You see a lot of those non-major-conference schools winning BCS games. Blake Bortles won a BCS game. I don’t consider those programs any less than the big schools. Yes, the SEC is the big dog, but there is improvement of teams across the country.
Players are going to come out of everywhere. Players are going to be overlooked. Judging a 15-year-old on his throwing ability is often ridiculous. They’re going to grow into a different adult.
If you’re getting twice as many reps and challenged twice as hard in practice, then you’re better off going to the smaller school. At the same time, it’s easier to be in a big program that has all of the facilities and the structure there.
For a player who wants to be good, like Josh (Johnson), a dedicated athlete who wants to push himself, I think a small school is a great environment because he was dedicated himself and he was putting the work in. A lot of times when you’re at a bigger school you’re going to have that structure around you and all of that is going to be forced upon you. You’ve got to match your skills, your attitude, your personality with the school that you choose.
Q: Did you impress Jim Harbaugh when you played against him and Stanford?
BETHEL-THOMPSON: Coach Harbaugh recruited me out of high school when he was at the University of San Diego, so I’ve known him for a relatively long time. You’d have to ask him if I impressed him. He hurt me – his defensive tackle blew up my ankle.
Q: Why didn’t you go to USD?
BETHEL-THOMPSON: I didn’t have the money to go to San Diego. It’s a non-scholarship school and I was a betweener, so I didn’t get all the financial aid and my parents couldn’t afford it. I literally couldn’t afford to go to San Diego.